7. Björk, Post (Elektra, 1995)
Björk’s career has been a series of test cases to determine just how much strangeness a song can contain and still work as pop. On Post, the Icelandic eccentric revelled in the possibilities opened up by the multiplatinum success of 1993’s Debut (her first solo album after quitting the Sugarcubes). Instead of playing it safe, Björk brought the weirdness—from jazz fusion’s edgy tonality to dance music’s rhythmic science. In retrospect, she’d felt that Debut had been too tame. “I had very safe pop songs…and I was sort of shy and humble toward the whole thing,” she said in 1995. “This time I felt more at ease.”
Shedding the boutiquey qualities that allowed some to dismiss her as a Sade for the ’90s, Björk hooked up with multiple collaborators to forge an eclectic tour de force that challenged the agility of her starburst voice. The orchestral grandeur of “Isobel,” the technoid seduction of “Possibly Maybe,” the industrial juggernaut of “Army of Me,” and the big-band retro romp of “It’s Oh So Quiet” each highlight a different facet of her fascinatingly mutable identity (magic-realist dreamer, cyber-diva, space-pixie, etc.). These personalities are further dramatized in a series of brilliantly inventive videos such as “Army of Me” and its Tank Girl tyke. A TV-friendly ambassador for all things avant, Björk offers electronica with a human face for those intrigued by new sounds but alienated by the genre’s anonymity.
“Post helped popularize the modern idea of an album as a delicatessen,” says Björk collaborator Graham Massey of techno outfit 808 State. The two tracks co-written and co-produced by Massey—”Army of Me” and “The Modern Things”—actually date from the Debut sessions. Recorded in just one day in 1991 at a Manchester home studio, the demo versions were deemed too harsh for Debut‘s lush sound-world, but the songs were reactivated for Post. The lyrical concept of “Army of Me”—Björk in tough-love mode telling a self-pitying friend to shape up—was suggested by the implacable, monolithic groove, not vice versa. “Most vocalists just sit in the corner and get tortured over the lyrics,” Massey says. “But being a formidable musician as well as a singer, Björk develops melody before words—the lyrics all start out as this wordless mumbo jumbo. That approach works brilliantly with electronica, ’cause you’re forming the music as you go along.”
The album is also very much a product of the creative turmoil of 1994-95 London, where Björk had relocated from Iceland. Jungle was exploding out of the underground, and strange hybrids such as trip-hop were percolating. “If Björk had moved somewhere else, like New York, it would have been a totally different album,” Massey says. Yet Post was actually recorded and mixed in the Bahamas at Nassau’s famous Compass Point Studios. According to DJ/U2 collaborator Howie B., who engineered Post, “Despite being in this Caribbean vacation paradise, we only had one day off in three weeks. And because the studios have no windows, we might as well have been in London.” Björk did record some of her vocals with her feet in the ocean, though, thanks to a long microphone cord.
The frigid climate of Iceland was the setting for two collaborations with Tricky—the sensuous “Headphones” and the shatteringly intense “Enjoy.” “They were like rough demos,” says Tricky, who later dated Björk. “I kept waiting for her to say, ‘Let’s take them to an expensive studio.’ But Björk had the courage to release the songs as they were, and that still shocks me. She ain’t scared of nothing.” Of their first meeting, Tricky says, “I thought she was mad cute but didn’t think anything would come of it—she was on a different planet than me, a superstar.”
But then, the cool thing about Björk is precisely the elegance with which she manages to straddle the murky underworld of marginal music and the overlit overground of MTV pop. Certified gold in the U.S., Post represents Björk’s balancing act at its high-wire pinnacle.
14. Tricky, Maxinquaye (Island, 1996)
Revealing former Massive Attack member Tricky as one of the most inventive producers and lyricists around, Maxinquaye also helped establish “trip-hop” as a genre (though Tricky himself fiercely rejected the term). The album was recorded almost entirely in London, but it has everything to do with Bristol, Tricky’s hometown. “In the ’80s, all the different ghettos were interbreeding,” says Tricky’s friend Mark Stewart, formerly of avant-funksters the Pop Group. “We’d all be checking out reggae ‘blues’ parties, industrial-punk events, and hip-hop jams.” You can hear this Bristol mix percolating in Maxinquaye‘s hybrid soundscapes that incorporate everything from Public Enemy’s righteous noise to garish art-rock weirdness and postpunk angst.
“Mark Stewart, he’s my chaos,” says Tricky of the mentor who acted as unofficial executive producer on the single “Aftermath,” Tricky’s first solo recording outside Massive Attack. It was Stewart who persuaded Tricky to scam funds from Massive’s management for studio time, and after blowing half the money on booze, the pair finally recorded a downtempo haze of “hip-hop blues.” Outside his house, Tricky met teenage student Martina Topley-Bird while she was waiting for a bus, and he invited her to sing. There may have been a fourth conspirator—Tricky believes the postapocalyptic lyrics were channeled from his mother, Maxine Quaye, who committed suicide when he was four.
Tricky offered “Aftermath” to Massive Attack but says Massive’s 3D told him, “It’s shit, you’ll never make it as a producer!” While “Aftermath” languished on cassette for three years, Tricky sank into depression, complete with marijuana-induced hallucinations of demons in his living room.
After a collaboration with engineer Howie B disintegrated because of management conflicts, Tricky and Topley-Bird went to work in a home studio. The massively acclaimed Maxinquaye works as both an autobiographical account of one man’s struggles and as a cryptic allegory. Capturing the orphaned drift of the mid-’90s, just as Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On had crystallized the curdled idealism of the early ’70s, the album concerns the inability of Tricky’s generation to even imagine a utopia. “We’re all fucking lost!” Tricky declared in 1995. “I can’t see how things are gonna get better. I think we have to destroy everything and start again.” Yet despite its relentlessly bleak vision, Maxinquave‘s sheer aesthetic splendor makes it oddly life-affirming.
16. My Bloody Valentine, Loveless (Sire, 1991)
Almost as famous for the reclusive silence that followed its release as its swoon-inducing reinvention of rock guitar, Loveless was itself a long-delayed sequel to a critically acclaimed predecessor (1998’s Isn’t Anything). “Loveless cost £270,000 [now $430,000], and nine years ago that was a fortune,” says Alan McGee, head of the band’s U.K. label, Creation. “MBV were in the studio relentlessly—all-night sessions virtually every day for two and a half years. I could see my label slipping away. I’d even mortgaged my house! In the end, I had to emotionally blackmail [Valentine leader] Kevin Shields to get him to finish.”
MBV were daunted by acclaim, according to McGee, and their emotional confusion was complicated by their immersion in London’s dance scene. “We all went to house clubs three times a week, getting shitfaced and having these intense spiritual experiences,” McGee recalls. All that psychedelic excess fed the group’s creative process, pushing MBV to breakthroughs such as the Ecstasy-addled rave ‘n’ roll of “Soon” and the blissful blur of their trademark “glide guitar,” which was copied by a legion of “dreampop” bands (Lush, Ride, Slowdive, etc.). Eventually, McGee repaired his friendship with Shields, and sometime last year, Loveless even recouped the money spent on it.
24. Massive Attack, Blue Lines (Virgin, 1991)
Massive Attack’s debut is a ferment of arty bohemia, dancehall dub-culture, and imported B-boy street beats, born in the laid-back coastal city of Bristol, England. The album’s torpid BPM rate was a break from the hyperkinetic norm of the time and was influenced by artists ranging from Isaac Hayes to PiL. From the latter, Massive also derived the idea of operating as a collective: the inner core was 3D, Mushroom, and Daddy G, but they drew on a range of satellite talent—soul chanteuse Shara Nelson, roots-reggae nightingale Horace Andy, producer Jonny Dollar, and a rapper then known as Tricky Kid.
The orchestral soul epics “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Safe From Harm,” sung by Nelson, were U.K. chart hits. But Blue Lines‘ most inventive tunes are “One Love,” a skank-tempo jazz-fusion ballad crooned by Horace Andy, and “Daydreaming,” a showcase for the low-key, British rhyme style launched by Tricky and 3D. “We knew we couldn’t be Rakim or Slick Rick, so we drew on the reggae sound-system vibe and came up with our own thing,” Tricky says. This meditational style fit the stream-of-semi-consciousness lyrics like a glove. “People associate it with smoking weed, a sort of Bristol-style detachment from real life,” 3D says.
Blue Lines‘ merger of British art-rock and American soul basically defined trip-hop. “That album inspired me to start a label,” says UNKLE chief and Mo’ Wax founder James Lavelle. “UNKLE wouldn’t have happened without Massive’s idea that you could be a collective rather than a band. Blue Lines is my favorite album of all time.”
45. Basement Jaxx, Remedy (Astralwerks, 1999)
Reflecting the rarely acknowledged diversity of late-’90s house music even as it pushes that genre’s envelope to the bursting point, Basement Jaxx’s debut, Remedy, stands among the most inventive dance albums of the decade. Based in South London, the Jaxx—Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton—call their wildly impurist style “punk garage.” “What we admire in deep house and American garage is the music’s untouchable sexiness, which U.K. house has always lacked,” says Ratcliffe. “At the same time, we like to rough up that polished sound with some English punk attitude.”
It results in killer tunes like “Same Old Show,” based around a surprisingly eerie vocal loop from “On My Radio” by British ska revivalists the Selecter, and “Jump N’ Shout,” with its raucous dancehall reggae vocal and menacing gangsta-strut bass line. Remedy‘s every-which-way creativity also encompasses the Timbaland-style stutter beats of “U Can’t Stop Me” and funk fantasia of “Rendez-Vu” and “Yo-Yo.” “When we started out, we were just trying to be house producers,” says Ratcliffe. “Now that we’ve achieved that, we’re trying not to be house producers.”
56. Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (R&S, 1992), Selected Ambient Works Volume II (Warp/Sire, 1994)
In terms of sheer sonic beauty, Aphex Twin’s debut, Selected Ambient Works 85-92, is simply the best pure electronic album of the ’90s, offering the most emotionally and texturally rich synth-musik since prime Kraftwerk. But what made creator Richard James that rare thing, the techno icon, wasn’t just his genius for exquisite melody but the slyly fabricated Aphex mythology, i.e., James as rural child prodigy, constructing his own synthesizers from scratch and sleeping two hours a night.
Many in the Aphex cult were thrown for a loop by Selected Ambient Works Volume II, a triple album of eerie, ultraminimal tonescapes mostly devoid of melody or beat. James claimed many tracks were “based on sounds I first heard while dreaming. When I wake up, I go straight into the studio and try to create what I’ve heard.” Volume II is an awe-inspiring feat of avant-techno texturology and mood-sculpture, but Aphex aficionados remain divided. “The first album is a pop album,” reasons James’s friend Mike “u-ziq” Paradinas. “Volume II takes a long time to learn to like, but it’s probably more rewarding.”
60. The Prodigy, Music for the Jilted Generation (XL/Mute, 1994)
After “Firestarter,” the notion of Prodigy as a futuristic rock band doesn’t seem startling. But in 1994, Music for the Jilted Generation was a shocking reinvention, rocketing the group out of Britain’s rave culture and winning them an audience of alt-rockers. The grungy guitar on “Their Law” and “Voodoo People” helped convert many. But the album’s concept also got them taken seriously as spokesmen for youth: The Prodigy’s Generation J was Generation X with a U.K. spin—alienated kids whose weekend rave nirvana was being threatened by repressive policies. “There was never trouble at the outdoor raves we used to play,” says Maxim Reality, Prodigy’s MC. “It was just serious government paranoia about youth massing together.”
The album is perfectly poised between the E-beat roller coaster of the group’s 1992 debut, Experience, and the cyberpunk postures of 1997’s rocktronica breakthrough, The Fat of the Land. Jilted‘s stand-out is “Poison”—the first time the Prodigy used “real” rather than sampled vocals and down-shifted into hip-hop boombastics. “Poison” was “the stepping-stone toward ‘Firestarter,'” says Reality, who supplied the track’s fierce vocals.
Jilted begins with a voice-over: “I’ve decided to take my work back underground, to stop it falling into the wrong hands.” Despite beatmaster Liam Howlett’s obsession with street cred, Jilted showed that the Prodigy’s irrepressible populism had them locked on an unstoppable course for global stardom. All that remained was for vocalist Keith Flint to change his hairstyle.